First, there’s the great state of Washington, in which lawmakers recently passed a bill that would allow same sex marriage. It’s expected to be signed into law sometime this week.
Unfortunately, the deal isn’t sealed yet:
The proposal would take effect 90 days after the session ends next month but opponents have promised to fight gay marriage with a ballot measure that would allow voters to overturn the legislative approval.
If opponents gather enough signatures to take their fight to the ballot box, the law would be put on hold pending the outcome of a November election. Opponents must turn in more than 120,000 signatures by June 6 if they want to challenge the proposed law. Otherwise gay couples could wed starting in June.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco, in a 2-1 decision yesterday, ruled voters couldn’t deprive gay couples of the right to marry. Proposition 8’s only purpose “was to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California,” which the U.S. Constitution doesn’t allow, the court said.
Proponents of the measure, approved by 52 percent of voters in 2008 after the California Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, said they will continue their court battle to reinstate the law and hope to win in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jumping on the bandwagon is New Jersey, whose Senate recently voted to legalize gay marriage. In contrast to Washington, however, there aren’t enough votes to override a veto, which Christie has vowed to do.
He again offered up the alternative he proposed last week: a referendum on the issue in November, noting that 31 other states had already done so. What he failed to say, however, was that such a referendum has never been approved by voters.
“The fact is, they don’t trust the people of New Jersey to decide,” Christie said, referring to supporters of the measure.
Aaaaaand finally, there’s Maine, which appears to be bypassing the legislative process altogether and going straight to the referendum:
Marriage equality activists in Maine have announced that they will proceed with a ballot initiative to strike down the 2009 referendum that overturned same-sex marriage in the state. The coalition, led by EqualityMaine and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, has gathered more than 105,000 signatures from Mainers who want to bring marriage to the ballot in 2012, far more than the roughly 57,000 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. The signatures will be submitted to the Secretary of State on January 26, 2012.
On the other side of the coin, there’s North Carolina, which is putting to popular vote a proposition that will amend the state constitution to ban same sex unions:
On May 8, 2012, North Carolina voters will consider Amendment 1, a ballot proposition that would inscribe a ban on same-sex marriage in the North Carolina Constitution …
North Carolina law already bans marriage equality but, absent a constitutional amendment, existing law would be subject to state court challenge. In addition to precluding such a challenge, opponents of the North Carolina measure note that the broad language of the amendment could result in the denial of a wide range of rights and protections to non-married couples — gay and straight — on the grounds that those relationships would be barred from legal recognition if the amendment passes.
According to supporters, although same-sex marriage is already outlawed in the state, they hope to reinforce the law with the proposed measure. Pointing to the state of Iowa in which a similar ban was overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court in 2009, Sen. Paul Gazelka said, “I want to give the people of Minnesota the opportunity to protect the definition of marriage from activist judges.“
Bonus points to Paul for the genius move of bringing the manufactured specter of “activist judges” back into political discourse. If you repeatedly affix a negative label to a population of the judicial branch with whom you happen to personally disagree, people will eventually begin to think there’s some actual substance behind it. That, by the way, is another example of “proof by repeated assertion“. It doesn’t make it true, but the association stays with you anyway.
Just ask Catherine the Great.
The other issue in each of these cases is the real risk of appeal by way of referendum (or argumentum ad populum). Now this method of direct democracy is acceptable if we’re talking about whether to put up a casino, build a library, or hike taxes for some public works project. Using it to determine whether or not minorities are eligible for civil rights, re-define “science” in order to push creationism into public schools, or to … well … determine whether or not other minorities are eligible for civil rights is extremely problematic. When Governor Christie of New Jersey lectured an audience about how people would have been “happy” to have had a referendum on civil rights in the 60s, he was quickly schooled by people who actually knew what the hell they were talking about:
… Senate President Sweeney (D-Gloucester), noted that civil rights have historically been gained through legislation. Today, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) had sharp words for the governor and said he needed a “history lesson.”
“Governor — people were fighting and dying in the streets of the South for a reason,” she said. “They were fighting and dying in the streets of the South because the majority refused to grant minorities equal rights by any method. It took legislative action to bring justice to all Americans, just as legislative action is the right way to bring marriage equality to all New Jerseyans.”
Newark Mayor Cory Booker had much the same criticism: “I shudder to think what would have happened if the civil rights gains, heroically established by courageous lawmakers in the 1960s, were instead conveniently left up to popular votes in our 50 states.
Something like this will likely have to happen on the federal level for gay rights in order to set the standard and let that be the end of it. This country will always have plenty of people who use their belief in an unobservable supreme being to justify their own fear and hatred, and will continue to exercise their right to participate in the democratic process to keep others down. History has shown that there is a way to overcome it, but I doubt we have the political will to carry it out any less piecemeal than the way it’s being done today.